Monday, 18 August 2008

... and a big thank-you to Margaretha and John

I'd also like to say a big thank-you to Margaretha Danbolt Simons and John Hart for an unforgettable stay.

Of course, I wouldn't have been here if two years ago John hadn't asked Janet if we were English cyclists when we met on the ferry to Leka in Norway.

At the time, John asked if I was learning Norwegian - and then introduced his travelling companion Margaretha as the author of the Teach Yourself Norwegian book I was listening to just before he came over to us!

The rest is history... but a stay at her summerhouse is an unmissable experience, with lots of laughter and fun, scintillating conversation, and a years' worth of new literary recommendations to work through now. Something to store away and recall in the dark and gloomy winter months ahead of us in the UK, I think!

p.s. - This time it's a big picture, if you want to click through to the original rather than peering at the thumbnail.

I'm on my way home!

Just time to write a quick note to say I'm on a big container ship in Brevik waiting for it to slip its lines and sail to Immingham in the UK, which it should reach on 20 August at 0200 - then I join the family in Cornwall for the last part of the summer holiday by the beach.

Thanks for all your emails and comments, it's been great to be in touch with you. Ubiquitous internet connectivity and mobile phone coverage have changed travel forever - no more delight at finding post restante mail waiting after weeks of news blackout, but on the plus side I've never been lonely or short of something to read from you all!

They are pulling the lines in now and the engines are rumbling - can feel a surge of excitement in my cabin high on the superstructure at the back of the ship. Shortly I will be literally out of radio contact as the mobile signal falls away but this won't be the last post, watch out for more photos and conclusions soon!

Best regards,

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Time to reflect...

I've been in Strömstad in Sweden for several days. This pleasant seaside spa town is famous for enjoying more sunshine than anywhere else in Sweden. It's some 135 km from Oslo, and makes a popular day trip destination for the Weegies. They can catch the Color Line ferry from Sandefjord which docks here to buy all of the expensive things at home much more cheaply abroad.

It reminds me a little of Cowes on the Isle of Wight at home, with its many yachts, small boats, and white wooden buildings. In high summer, it is crowded with tourists, but we are now in the second week of August - the schools are re-opening, the crowds have gone, and the town is noticeably quieter.

By some miracle, I managed to get a room at the very lovely Crusellska STF hostel in the oldest part of the town. The large, cream-coloured building dates from 1827 and was run as a health spa for many years by its owner, Doctor Bernhard Crusell. Today the white fluffy dressing gowns and complementary white house slippers are still very much in evidence, along with wicker furniture and well-tended pot-plants, because the new owners run it similar lines, offering short stays for guests wanting a bit of pampering. I'm not booked on any treatment courses, but it does make for a wonderfully relaxed setting to bring the diary up to date in, and to turn over the experiences of the last two and a half months. Ultimately I'll be here until Margaretha and John fly back to Oslo from their trip to Finnmark and can welcome me to Margaretha's summer house in Stavern. At that point I'll join the returning day trippers on the ferry back to Norway.

Friday, 8 August 2008

A ride along the Klarälvsbana

Another unexpected and rewarding discovery this week has been the Klarälvsbana, a fifty-five mile asphalt-surfaced cycle route from Hagfors to Karlstad that follows the line of an old railway track. It's flat, and very pleasant to cycle along.

No expense spared - they have even put white stripes down the side for the visually impaired, and they mark the edges of the track with reflective posts when it travels over an embankment (which I suppose one might conceivably need on a dark winter night). The money came from the EU, and the project was completed last year. It isn't seeing a huge amount of use yet, summer traffic seems to be about 30-40 cyclists each day past the cafe at the half-way mark, but I'm sure it will build when word spreads, because it's an excellent car-free route between the two areas.

There are a couple of campsites beside it, and free camping is a possibility too. They've even built little composting toilets at each five kilometre mark, with fly-proof screens and toilet paper too!

Once I've got the tent up, I can relax...

Once I've got the tent up, I can relax...

Saw this big brother version of our tentipi at Räda Camping near Hagfors. I'm not sure how portable it is, but it would be great for a large group of you on tour...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Someone else on a bicycle!

This is a rare event, considering the number of miles clocked up here in Sweden. After days and days of riding in isolation from Stockholm along the Sverigeleden I meet another cyclist, heading in the opposite direction!

The scenery behind our bikes is fairly typical of this part of Varmland between Fredrikstad and Hagfors - the road just keeps climbing and falling, and it is rainy and cool. The pine trees form a pretty impenetrable barrier beside the road, and beyond them the ground is often either swamp or rocks and tree roots. On the plus side, there's very little traffic, and cars and lorries give cyclists a wide berth.

And it is very, very quiet.

Janine tells me I'm the first person she has talked to for some time, and that I am the only cycletourist she has seen here (same goes for me).

She has been riding for three or four weeks from Trondheim towards Stockholm, and we had a lot to talk about. I could tell her that her endless days of pine trees, hills, and lakes are nearly over - just 120 km to go to the rich farmlands of Dalarna - and she could warn me about endless days of pine trees, hills and lakes ahead for me! We both stopped early yesterday as the rain intensified into a gale (much damage here in Sweden). But whilst I was tucked up in front of a wood burning stove writing my diary in a holiday chalet at Säfsen, Janine was once again lying in a wet tent for most of the afternoon, listening to branches creaking ominously above her tent in the storm.

So one salient difference is that she's been wild camping for weeks at a time, with just a dip in a perfectly silent lake to look forward to at the end of each day. And she drinks her water from lakes and churchyard taps - one tough cookie! I'm not quite ready to embrace discomfort for days at a time, but maybe I should really throw myself into the feral lifestyle now, when I've got just a few weeks to go? This is after all the ideal place to go really wild, there's no-one else around for miles.

In the end, Hagfors was going to be my final destination for the day because it's the only town of any size along this stretch of road. It is raining again, but this time I'm in a sizable but cheap three-room apartment close to the Tourist Information office, which is apparently the closest thing the town has to a hostel. I haven't seen much of the town yet, but I plan to go out for a wander when the rain stops later ... correction, if the rain stops later...

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The rain has finally caught up with me ...

After two weeks of browning my knees in the scorching Swedish sunshine, I'm now back in my rain gear again.

I'm trying to ride towards Arvika to find out about opportunities for a canoe holiday there next year, but the rain is falling in sheets today, so I am going to make a short 40km dash from Borlänge, where I have stayed overnight in the luxurious but very reasonably priced First Hotel, to the youth hostel at Grangärde at the top of Lake Väsman to the west.

Thursday and Friday were spent in a prison cell in Falun, home of Sweden's copper mining industry and its second city for many hundreds of years until the mine collapsed in the late 17th century. Fortunately the prison is now a Youth Hostel, so I had the key to my room, but nevertheless I didn't enjoy the experience - clanging cell doors at all hours, and five sets of locks to get through each time I left the place. I prefer Roar's approach, no locks whatsoever anywhere. Falun was well worth the time spent there though - apart from the huge pit left by the mine, it's a beautiful historic town in its own right and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I was also able to use Falun as a base for a day ride to Carl and Karin Larson's house at Sundborn, which will remain a highlight of the trip for me. I found the tour very moving. The house was so beautifully decorated by the couple who poured all their artistic ability into their family home. Every room conveys a very strong visual impression of the life of the family living there at the turn of the 20th century.

The First Hotel at Borlänge has been a very welcome refuge from the rain on my way back from Falun, I'd definitely choose it again if I come back this way!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Sixty seconds...

Neil Armstrong famously landed Apollo 11 on the moon with less than 60 seconds of fuel left. I seem to be in the same place with credit remaining on my phone every time I finally get to the top of the queue to talk to a callcenter person in the UK...

I've just burnt through another 200kr top-up card provided by my Swedish mobile operator Telenor SE while on hold for Vodafone UK callcenter people.

It has taken several attempts to talk to them about unblocking the two SIM cards I use, one for my usual contract number and the other for mobile internet access. It seems that after a very slow start, the roaming charges for mobile internet access all arrived on their system in a big burst, resulting in the suspension of both SIM cards while they investigated "usage irregularities" on my account.

They tell me they sent me an SMS message warning me about the suspension just before they put it in place, but I didn't have their SIM card in my mobile for much of the time in Norway, and both cards were blocked when I tried them on entry into Sweden.

It seems to be a similar story with my bank, who also stopped my debit card for a while because they want to issue another one to me. Fortunately they handle calls from abroad much more efficiently than Vodafone (with a seperate priority queue) and all is sweetness and light with them again. Plus they call you back rather than popping you on hold while they investigate further.

It's not that the funds are not available, it's just a question of working around the anti-fraud systems they use, which naturally stop any activity unless it follows a pattern that predates the trip.

The alternative to all this expensive calling should be a set of well-designed web pages to allow both sides to sort out this kind of problem asynchronously. Vodafone's website falls pretty short of what is required here, by asking customers to provide them with five or six easily guessable security questions. If you register with their site, make absolutely sure you travel with the answers to each question, written with the exact punctuation and captitalisation you used when setting up your account, or you'll be back to languishing in their callcenter queue while you burn through your recently topped up Swedish mobile phone card's credit, waiting to ask them to unlock their website for you too.

Neil Armstrong's heartbeat was around 151 per minute for the last few minutes of the lunar landing apparently - but at least he was in control of the situation...

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Jo and Beamer get to Nordkapp

I am delighted to discover that Jo and her faithful bicycle Beamer made it to the North Cape, completing 10,000 kms or more on the road since leaving Munich at the start of the year. The weather seems to have been pretty much the same for her as it was for me!

She writes in an email today that she is now in Finland, and is setting out soon to cross the borders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on her way home...

New pictures on flickr, including Stamsund

You may have been wondering why the photo trail on flickr went cold just after I arrived at the North Cape. Well, the good news is that none of the pics taken on the trip were lost in the Great iPod Disaster, it has just taken me longer than usual to find a good solid Internet connection with enough bandwidth to upload them.

So today, I have uploaded and captioned the pictures taken with the Canon EOS 350 SLR including those from Stamsund, and you'll find them here:- - helpfully organised into separate sets for Norway and Sweden.

I've even tagged the Stamsund photos with "Stamsund" ... now if I had a bit longer I could put these into a separate collection, couldn't I?

In the meantime, I have 430 pics from the smaller Canon Ixus here to sort out, ouch!!